WASHINGTON — Three Democratic presidential prospects tried competing against the Rev. Jesse Jackson on his home turf here Saturday, but from start to finish it was no contest.
At a forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, more than 1,500 guests, nearly all of them black, gave their applause and their hearts to Jackson.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis summed things up for himself and the other two white contenders who appeared here--Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder--in his closing statement. "If I can't be your first choice, I want to be your second choice," he said.
Dukakis, Gephardt and Schroeder may all have gained some points just for showing up at the forum, part of the annual Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, an occasion that has become a major event for black politicians and their supporters. And, if Jackson has anything to say about it, the three 1988 Democratic contenders who were invited but did not attend--former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon--will lose some points.
In his opening statement Jackson recalled that at the recent series of campaign debates in Iowa, "everybody showed up." He said pointedly: "There is a message about those who came and those who did not."
Those who did come had an a eye on the future, when they believe Jackson might drop out of the race and his black supporters might be available to another contender. They sought to make the most of the opportunity by giving the right answers to questions on issues of concern to black voters. The questions were posed to them by members of the caucus, made up of the 23 black members of the House.
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They pledged that, if elected, they would increase federal aid to education, step up civil rights enforcement, reassess defense spending, cut off aid to the contras opposing the leftist regime in Nicaragua and sign into law legislation granting statehood to the District of Columbia.
The agreement was so pervasive that at one point Schroeder said: "It's so important to say ditto to everything." The congresswoman, who will announce Monday whether she will officially enter the presidential race, seemed distracted at times during the forum and some of her answers wandered from the point.
Nevertheless, she won applause for her "burden sharing" proposal to shift some of the burden of defense costs to U.S. allies--and for some of her sallies against the Reagan Administration.
Dukakis, considered by many to be the front-runner, also had his ups and downs. Just before the 5-foot-8-inch governor rose to speak, a platform was placed on the floor to give him some additional stature.
But when Illinois Rep. Gus Savage stepped to the podium to introduce Dukakis, he noticed the difference the platform made and remarked to general laughter: "It seems I've grown a few inches."
Dukakis, discussing efforts to curb racism, brought up the recently disclosed episode about his belated discovery that a trust fund established for him had invested in companies involved in South Africa, although he has long opposed the apartheid policies of that country.
The investments were changed, but Dukakis said opposition to racism "is not just a question of making speeches and standing up and expressing moral outrage. It's also a question of being sensitive in your own personal life."
Gephardt also had an awkward moment. In urging more federal aid to education, he said: "We should be spending for star schools, not 'Star Wars,' " a phrase that Dukakis had used in a debate last month in Des Moines.
"That was my line," Dukakis said when he followed Gephardt to the platform. The audience laughed, but, to avoid a new controversy over plagiarism of the sort that ultimately drove Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. to abandon his candidacy last week, Dukakis said: "We all learn from each other."
However, no matter what anyone else said or did, Jackson was clearly the main attraction. With cheers and cries of "Win, Jesse, win!" ringing in his ears, he evidently felt this was no occasion for excessive modesty.
Noting in his closing statement that he was running ahead of his Democratic rivals in most opinion surveys, he said: "I am leading in the national polls because I am leading in national service."